Horror and heroism: Watching Boston while 3,000 miles from home

I live only 20 minutes outside of Boston but on April 15 I was far from home on vacation in Ireland. FierceHealthcare and FierceHealthIT editors covered the Marathon bombings story while I was gone and wrote excellent stories, interviews and columns on how the event impacted hospitals and other healthcare organizations.

Although media coverage has been extensive, as I sat at my computer thinking about what to write for this week's column, I just couldn't imagine writing about anything else.

With spotty access to Internet and television, it was sheer coincidence that I was in a pub in Kilarney with my friend, who also has Boston roots, and that CNN was on the TV behind the bar at the moment the news hit. The entire place crowded around the TV in silence as the unbelievable news unfolded.

After the initial shock of seeing an area of Boston that I know so well in an unrecognizable and incomprehensible state of disaster, my first thought was of all the people I know who might have run the race or been at the finish line.

Although I was pretty sure my dad wasn't there that day (he wouldn't have been working on Patriot's Day, which is a legal holiday in the city), he had been working at Brigham and Women's hospital the week before. And then there were the many friends and family who live, work and go to school in the area--including several who work at Boston hospitals or are journalists who cover Boston news and may very well have been in the area at the time of the explosions.

My friend and I cried from fear and sorrow and then cried from relief as, one by one, friends and family checked in on Facebook and by email. We may be Boston strong, but that didn't stop us from having moments when the horror and grief washed over and overwhelmed us over the duration of the trip.  

It's hard for me to explain how awful it felt to be away from home even as I was enjoying a trip I've been dreaming of for so long. And to be without Internet and TV for long stretches each day. When I could find a wireless connection, I followed the news mainly through emails from home and social media: Boston.com's live blog, Facebook and Twitter.

That, plus incredible support and sympathy from everyone we met (Ireland sends its love, Boston) helped us feel connected.

Again, others have written about the heroic efforts of physicians, nurses and the healthcare community, as they rushed to the aid of the victims. It was so impressive, even from 3,000 miles away.  

And so I'm sorry this column isn't strictly about healthcare and also that it is so self-centered--I'll return you to your regular programming on Meaningful Use and ICD-10 and accountable care and healthcare reform and the business of healthcare in my next column, I promise.

If you've read this far, I thank you for your indulgence. And I invite you to share your personal stories, below, as well.

Meanwhile, here are some of the stories we've written since April 15--I'm really proud of the Fierce team, which kept calm and focused and worked hard not only to cover the news, but to do so from our readers' point of view:

Forced into lockdown, Boston hospitals balance operations, safety: As it happens, my dad was back on the job at Brigham and Women's and another friend of mine was also at work there when the city went into lockdown. I'm not going to say I wasn't worried. I was. But I also felt confident that Brigham and other hospitals in the city were well-prepared for the event.  

In emergencies, hospital preparedness goes beyond planning: One of the reasons I was confident is that I have reported about how, in the years since 9/11, hospitals have updated their emergency plans and drilled for any number of catastrophes.  As FierceHealthcare reported, the Boston Marathon bombings put hospital disaster planning to the test. And they passed it.

In Boston, radiologists helped provide organization amid chaos: Think of the individual acts of heroism that occurred that day--marathon participants extending their 26-mile run to nearby hospitals so they could donate blood; off-duty physicians rushing into the chaos to report for duty; police, first responders and other public safety workers who risked (and gave) their lives to help the victims and keep the public safe; and ordinary people on the street who came to victims' aid.

At least 10 Boston area hospitals treated those who were injured in the bombings, many of them critically wounded. Radiologists were part of the first line team of physicians responding to the emergency. Radiologist Jerry Tkacz of Boston Medical Center was one of many who were tasked with examining images of horrific injuries. He'd never seen anything like it.

This story about how radiologists reacted to the crisis is emblematic of the larger story of an entire community of individuals coming together for good.

We are a business publication and so we turned to leaders at hospitals and health systems to find out what it all meant to operations for departments, including health information technology. John Halamka, CIO at Boston-based Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and FierceHealthIT Editorial Advisory Board member, told us that maintaining sufficient bandwidth and a reliable and secure infrastructure were key in keeping care efforts on track.

"The demand for communication--voice, email, social media and streaming video--was very high," Halamka said. "The scalability built into the design of all our systems--networks, servers, storage and client devices--served us well."

In a post on his own blog, he expanded on the operational requirements for dealing with a crisis such as the marathon bombings and a city-wide lockdown.

The tragedy put electronic medical records to the test, as well, raising important questions about whether our system of storing and tracking personal health data has fundamental flaws. The first terror attack on U.S. soil in the age of ubiquitous smartphones put the power and reliability of mobile healthcare to the test, as well.

And finally, a welcome good news story, as hospitals pledged financial aid to Boston bomb victims. The more than 180 bombing victims have had their lives turned upside down by horrific injuries. The thought of them opening a bill for their share of the massive medical costs literally turns my stomach.

Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Tufts Medical Center, using hospital donations and assistance funds, will do the right thing and withhold those bills. Insurers in Massachusetts, including Harvard Pilgrim Health Plan and Tufts Health Plan, also waived co-pays for the victims. Meanwhile, Aetna and Cigna offered free phone consultations with their behavioral health experts to anyone--regardless of whether they're covered by either insurer--coping with the tragedy. 

To our readers in the healthcare industry and everyone else who kept Boston safe and cared for the victims in a time of unbelievable chaos and fear, I have just one more thing to say.

Thank you.  - Gienna (@Gienna)